In the course of the 2020 presidential election, the FBI approached and pressured Twitter to grant the agency access to private user data. This information has come to light as part of the “Twitter Files” expose, a sprawling series of reports based on internal documents made available through Elon Musk’s ownership of the site.
In January of 2020, Yoel Roth, former Twitter Trust and Safety head, was pressured by the FBI to provide access to data ordinarily obtained through a search warrant. Roth had been previously approached by the FBI’s national security cyber wing in 2019 and had been asked to revise Twitter’s terms of service to grant access to the site’s data feed to a company contracted by the Bureau.
Roth drafted a response to the FBI, reiterating the site’s “long-standing policy prohibiting the use of our data products and APIs for surveillance and intelligence-gathering purposes, which we would not deviate from.” While Twitter would continue to be a partner to the government to combat shared threats, the company reiterated that the government must continue to “request information about Twitter users or their content […] in accordance with [the] valid legal process.”
Twitter and other social media platforms have been aware of increasing FBI encroachment for some time. In January of 2020, Carlos Monje Jr., former Director of Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter, wrote to Roth, saying “we have seen a sustained (if uncoordinated) effort by the IC [intelligence community] to push us to share more info & change our API policies. They are probing & pushing everywhere they can (including by whispering to congressional staff)...” Accordingly, from January 2020 and November 2022, over 150 emails were sent between the FBI and Roth.
Not only is the FBI trying to gain a backdoor into Twitter’s data stream, in several cases, the Bureau has pressured Twitter to pre-emptively censor content, opinions, and people. For example, the agency allegedly demanded that Twitter tackle election misinformation by flagging specific accounts. The FBI pointed to six accounts, four of which were ultimately terminated. One of those profiles was a notorious satire account, which calls into question the FBI’s ability to spot fakes. In November, the FBI handed Twitter a list of an additional twenty-five accounts that “may warrant additional action.” And, of course, there is the story about Hunter Biden’s laptop. According to the “Twitter Files,” the FBI pressured Twitter to censor the story as a possible Russian misinformation attack. This was a major story mere days before a presidential election, which the FBI worked to suppress.
Expanding efforts by the FBI to gain a backdoor into private social media information is a grave concern, as is the Bureau’s efforts to suppress information. That the agency continues to pursue such options even after being advised that those options violate normal legal procedures is yet another example of how the agency has become increasingly politicized, to the extent that a House Judiciary Committee report described the Bureau’s hierarchy as “rotted at its core” and embracing a “systemic culture of unaccountability.” This is a serious cause for concern given the widespread effects that the agency’s use and potential misuse of its authorities can have on the country as a whole.